He says he never wanted to be famous; he just wanted a piece of the action.
He says he’s not a real criminal, yet he’s spent more than 10 years in jail.
He says football is a beautiful sport, but he represents the single-biggest threat to the integrity of the professional game.
Wilson Raj Perumal is known as the world’s most prolific match-fixer, and I’m sitting face-to-face with him in the capital of Hungary, Budapest. It’s the first time he’s ever been interviewed on television.
Perumal has recently published his memoirs, "Kelong Kings," his account of an astonishing career spanning almost two decades, in which he says he rigged – with a success rate of roughly 80% – about 100 football matches all over the world. He was particularly active in the three years leading up to his final arrest in 2011.
From the Olympics to World Cup qualifiers, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the African Cup of Nations, the Women’s World Cup and numerous other friendly international fixtures, Perumal claims to have operated at the sharp end of an Asian fixing syndicate, conducting their business on four continents.
Most match fixers are anonymous. Investigators tracking the problem believe that Wilson Raj Perumal is just the tip of the iceberg, but since his arrest in 2011 (the fourth time he was tried and convicted for football-related crimes), he’s become the public face of match fixing. The publication of his story has given us a fascinating window into a global, clandestine, operation.
He is a fascinating character. From humble beginnings in Singapore, Perumal rose to become a shareholder in a sophisticated, multi-million dollar fixing syndicate. He claims to have made around $5 million illegally, showing no remorse for it. And he has little regret for blowing it all, a fortune frittered away as a result of his gambling habit.
Perumal speaks very matter-of-factly about his activities, fondly recalling the FIFA accredited referees he was so easily able to corrupt. “He was the best,” he told me as we reviewed games on YouTube that he says he manipulated, adding “of course, not the best for FIFA!”
As we watched another international friendly, he lamented a poor performance by the man in the middle, saying that a ‘more experienced’ referee would have waited longer before awarding a penalty. “You mean a more experienced corrupt referee,” I corrected him.
“Yes,” he chuckled.
Perumal reluctantly concedes that he is a criminal – “only because the media have given it so much attention” – but even then he would only cast himself as a white-collar crook.
With the exception of a player he took out with a brazen street attack in 2000 – he injured his knee with a hockey stick and was jailed for 12 months – he says he isn’t a violent operator. Nor did he ever intimidate the people he worked with, he claims.
Investigators who have spent years on the trail of fixers paint a very different picture though. The world they see is one in which players and referees are cornered, intimidated and blackmailed, their naivety exploited. When their involvement is finally exposed, it’s the players who pay the biggest price, some banned for life and publicly humiliated. In several cases in Korea, it tragically ended in suicide.
The damage is much more widespread though. Football’s very integrity is now at stake, fans are trying to discern the reality from the fiction and in the countries where the corruption has been endemic like Singapore and Malaysia, the supporters have walked away, the sponsorship has evaporated, the game has collapsed.
While the media has demonized him, Perumal presents himself as softly spoken, polite and likeable. For our interview, he’s dressed smartly in a blazer and a crisp, sky-blue shirt; the colour successfully predicted in advance of his arrival by the co-authors of his book. Unusually, he’s sporting black-rimmed spectacles; like the shirt, for special occasions only. Court hearings, etc.
Despite his best efforts to destroy football’s integrity, it’s a game he says he loves; football is a “beautiful sport.” As a promising young athlete in Singapore, he dreamed of emulating Argentina’s world cup winner Mario Kempes.
As we wandered through the streets of Budapest, he enthused about Brazil’s forward Neymar, lamenting that Barcelona should play a system that would maximize his potential. He told of his frustration that Spain persisted with goalkeeper Iker Casillas during their disastrous World Cup, a tournament on which he’d have lost ‘a lot of money’ as a gambler, because the results were so unpredictable.
It’s obvious that Perumal is very proud of his ‘career’ and the time and effort he invested in it. As he described in "Kelong Kings," “I gave Singapore’s economy a substantial shove. In 2009 alone, I spent close to $1.5 million on airline tickets for myself and my teams, a lot of money for someone running his business from the back of a photocopy shop.”
One of the investigators who pursued him admits that his ‘achievements’ command respect. Initially coercing players and referees, Perumal built up a global network of contacts. Ultimately he was dealing directly with a handful of co-operative national associations – ‘we were like two hands prepared to clap’ – and many others were unwittingly part of the scam.
When he was arrested for travelling on a false passport in Finland three years ago, the authorities discovered that Perumal had contacts for more than 50 national associations – that’s a quarter of the countries that play under the FIFA umbrella – on his laptop and phone.
At his peak, Perumal wasn’t just bribing a handful of individuals to underperform; he was creating international friendly fixtures, his organisation was fronting-up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overheads to fly teams all over the world and, of course, confidently betting on the results.
As a front, Perumal established his own company, Football 4 U International, which no longer exists. The whole thing was remarkably sophisticated, but there was much about the operation that was rudimentary. I have seen FIFA’s internal report into a series of manipulated friendly games before the 2010 World Cup, which described contractual agreements as ‘commercially laughable.’ And while his company might have sounded legitimate, its main email address – firstname.lastname@example.org – was perhaps less so.
And what certainly wasn’t sophisticated was the absence of any password protection on Perumal’s computer and email account, gift-wrapping for the authorities twelve thousand incriminating messages and a treasure-trove of information.
The keyboard with which he copy-edited the manuscript for his book has only 25 functioning letters; it must have been infuriating for his co-authors to locate all the missing Ws.
Throughout the two days we spent together, what really struck me was Perumal’s sense of entitlement, to him there was nothing morally wrong with making a living this way.
Here’s why: In the highly commercialized world of professional sport – which he viewed as corrupted well before he entered it – he was simply taking his piece of the pie. It’s clear that he holds FIFA in contempt, alleging that corruption within football’s world governing body is no way to lead by example, “it gives people like me the encouragement to go ahead and do what I’m doing.”
Given his vast experience and his willingness to share his knowledge, I find it surprising that, according to Perumal, FIFA hasn’t contacted him to help with their drive to clean up the sport. He would have plenty to say. At the very least, he could show them where to look if they’re serious about restoring credibility to the beautiful game. He certainly would be able to help them understand the odds and betting patterns in the Asian gambling markets which are crucial to comprehending how the fixers operate.
For the first time in his professional life, Wilson Raj Perumal can’t predict what’s going to happen next, it remains to be seen what the future holds. He’s still the subject of an international arrest warrant, a lengthy detention – possibly without trial – looms over him in Singapore.
He has no intention of ever returning home and being locked up with some of his former associates, instead he is focusing on his new young family. His girlfriend gave birth to twin girls earlier this year; a wedding is planned in the near future. From their home in Debrecen, a couple of hours east of Budapest, he’s contemplating a new venture – possibly a food court or garment business.
He hopes that the publication of his book will help close the chapter on his past life – it will be hard to fix matches with his face so well known – and perhaps help fund his new one; he told me that he was persuaded to pen his memoirs when he read that Amanda Knox had been paid millions for her deal with Harper Collins.
While the sales of Kelong Kings have been slow so far, there is certainly interest in Perumal’s story. For the same reason that Martin Scorcese’s Hollywood gangster movie Goodfellas is so popular, people seem to be intrigued by a chancer who is daring enough to beat the system. Via his Facebook page, Perumal receives hundreds of messages every day.
But the message of Perumal’s story is very serious. That he was able to operate as he did, so brazenly and unchallenged, is a major problem for football. When CNN asked the associations concerned if investigations have been conducted regarding the claims he made in his book, we were dismissed or ignored. FIFA’s response wasn’t much better, saying the game’s integrity is a ‘top priority’, but refusing to provide any details of investigations.
In the final analysis, you have to wonder how much is really being done to tackle match fixing. In the meantime, there could be many more Wilson Raj Perumals lining up to take their piece of the action, further trashing the game’s fragile integrity.